Sarah Goodwin: Could there be a more perfect name for a character played by Laura Linney? You just know Sarah wears her blond beauty unassumingly, and her bone structure and breeding have helped set her life compass.
Unfortunately for Linney -- and the audience at "Time Stands Still" -- Sarah also is a holier-than-thou, joyless prig.
Had she been written better, Sarah would have been an interesting challenge for the actress -- and she could have handled it -- but author Donald Margulies ("Sight Unseen," "Dinner With Friends") only looks at murky waters, afraid to dive in.
Sarah is a well-regarded, globetrotting photojournalist who specializes in trouble spots. "I live off the suffering of strangers," she says grimly and with a hint of self-aggrandizing relish. Her daredevil habits and judgmental snaps can inspire suffering among friends and family, too, but she either doesn't realize it or doesn't care: She has a purpose.
After narrowly escaping death in Iraq, Sarah is medevac'ed back to her shabby-chic Brooklyn loft. She recuperates from her injuries in the care of boyfriend James (Brian d'Arcy James, last seen as Shrek), a freelance writer who frequently collaborates with Sarah. He's struggling to place hard-hitting, war-is-hell stories with magazines more interested in celebrities. He's also working on a book about horror movies -- no rush there, since his great insight (horror is really about sex!) was already moldy back in 1981.
Sarah and James argue -- about the ethics of bearing witness to war, about an affair Sarah had in Iraq, about the sacrifices required by coupledom -- as every scene predictably flares up into contention. Adding to Margulies' schematic approach is the fact that the couple's friend and editor Richard (Eric Bogosian) has just started dating a much younger woman (Alicia Silverstone). A sweet, naive party planner, Mandy is the exact antithesis of Sarah. So . . . more dull bickering.
Under Daniel Sullivan's direction, the cast of this Manhattan Theatre Club production rises above the material it's been handed. Richard is a sketch of a nice guy, but Bogosian fills it with substantial decency. Silverstone imbues Mandy -- a part written with infuriating condescension -- with a kindness and generosity that make Sarah and James look like rude jerks.
When James heatedly berates a well-meaning play they've just seen as caricaturing the Middle East to make an NPR-loving audience feel better about itself, you can't help but pan around the Friedman Theatre and gape at the cruel irony of it all.
Sarah Goodwin, the complicated woman at the heart of “Time Stands Still,” seems to thrive on conflict, at least professionally. A photojournalist who covers wars and global strife, she keeps chaos at arm’s length by trapping it in the camera lens, exerting a fierce control over moments of horror by fixing them in time.
But the flux of Sarah’s own life cannot be manipulated so easily, as she learns with growing sorrow in this thoughtful drama by Donald Margulies that stars Laura Linney and Brian d’Arcy James, giving performances of complementary sensitivity and richness. Conflicting needs cannot be held at a cool distance; the wounds of the past cannot be filed away like old negatives; the change that experience brings is not reversible.
“Time Stands Still,” which opened Thursday night at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater in a flawless Manhattan Theater Club production directed by Daniel Sullivan, is handily Mr. Margulies’s finest play since the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Dinner With Friends.” Like that keenly observed drama about the growing pains of adulthood, the new play explores the relationship between two couples at a crucial juncture in their lives, when the desire to move forward clashes with the instinct to stay comfortably — or even uncomfortably — in place.
As the play opens, the challenges facing Sarah and her partner, James Dodd (Ms. Linney and Mr. d’Arcy James), seem clear enough. James has just brought Sarah home from a hospital in Germany, where she was recuperating from severe injuries suffered while she was covering the war in Iraq. Antsy and unused to the burdens of repose, Sarah rebuffs James’s constant efforts to cushion her from the bumps and bruises of recovery. His anxiety is amplified by a lingering sense of guilt: a reporter himself, he had suffered a breakdown in Iraq and returned to the United States shortly before Sarah’s accident, which has left her with a bum leg and scarred face.
Just how much has changed since Sarah was on assignment is brought home when they receive a visit from their good friend Richard Ehrlich (Eric Bogosian), Sarah’s former flame and mentor from many years before who is the photo editor at a newsmagazine. Richard has a new, much younger girlfriend in tow, Mandy (Alicia Silverstone), whose introduction of a pair of tacky silver balloons into James and Sarah’s funky loft in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, telegraphs just how markedly her sensibility differs from theirs.
Sarah accepts this absurd gift with devastating cool, as she greets all Mandy’s efforts to ingratiate herself. These include Mandy’s announcement that she has been praying for Sarah’s quick recovery. “It’s weird ’cause it’s not like I believe in God or anything,” Mandy adds, chirping away obliviously.
Ms. Silverstone, whose Broadway debut came in the dreary stage adaptation of “The Graduate,” gets a happy chance at redemption in a tricky role to which she brings warmth, actorly intelligence and delicate humor. She achieves the lovely feat of allowing us to laugh at Mandy’s shallowness even as we are charmed by her good-heartedness.
When Mandy disappears into the bathroom, Sarah and James blandly profess to find her “adorable” and “darling,” in tones that make this anodyne praise sound damning. Richard has been running conversational interference in an attempt to minimize Mandy’s missteps, a process that the terrific Mr. Bogosian illustrates in precise comic detail, as Richard’s romantic ardor wars with intellectual mortification.
Eventually Richard becomes righteous, insisting that the relationship isn’t just a matter of a middle-aged guy chasing younger women. Sarah’s withering reply: “There’s young, and there’s embryonic.”
Mr. Margulies is gifted at creating complex characters through wholly natural interaction, allowing the emotional layers, the long histories, the hidden kernels of conflict to emerge organically. His dialogue throughout “Time Stands Still” crackles with bright wit and intelligence, but it is almost always an expression of the characters’ personalities, not a function of the author’s need to dazzle and entertain. (A few lines feel false or glib, as when Sarah says, “War was my parents’ house all over again, only on a different scale.”)
He also folds into the writing a few trenchant debates about the moral ambiguities of journalists’ role in covering atrocities. In the play’s premiere production, at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles last year, these sometimes felt tacked on, but Mr. Sullivan, who also staged that version, and his largely new cast have mostly smoothed out any lumps in the writing. The heart of “Time Stands Still” resides in the gently evolving relationship between Sarah and James, which develops troubling new ripples in each scene.
Ms. Linney, an actress of unusual economy and seemingly innate grace, does not shy from depicting the thorny aspects of Sarah’s personality: her impatience with views opposing her own, the leftover anger from witnessing her parents’ unhappy marriage, the emotional reserve and the sense of detachment bred in her by her work. But she also reveals the reserves of tender feeling beneath the ample defenses. We sense Sarah’s growing fear that her need to live life on her own terms cannot be reconciled with the path James sees for their future. Ms. Linney’s tough but gently shaded performance honors the character’s seeming contradictions.
Mr. d’Arcy James, a remarkably versatile actor equally at home in splashy musicals like “Shrek” and the chiaroscuro delicacies of Conor McPherson’s “Port Authority,” has never been better than he is here. James’s anguish and guilt over his failure to protect Sarah are conveyed with touching warmth. The darker feelings that reside just below his congenial surface — envy of Sarah’s career success, rage at a betrayal he at first chooses to ignore — eventually burst forth, in scenes to which Mr. d’Arcy James brings fierce, raw anger that sets the stage crackling with currents of powerful feeling.
The loving but uneasy relationship between Sarah and James is contrasted with the effortless companionship of Richard and Mandy, drawn with a lighter but not less convincing sense of truth by Mr. Bogosian and Ms. Silverstone. Although “Time Stands Still” is deceptively modest, even laid back in its structure and sensibility, consisting of a handful of conversations among just four characters, the range of feeling it explores is wide and deep.
Sarah and James have spent much of their lives bearing witness to horrific violence, but Mr. Margulies’s quietly powerful drama illustrates just how much pain and trauma are involved in the everyday business of two people creating a life together, one that accommodates the mistakes of the past, the reality of the present and the changes that the future may bring.
Donald Margulies tends to write smartly crafted, accessible plays that tell us nothing we don't already know. Luckily, these works attract actors who can transcend their clichés and mine their intelligence and good-natured humor.
Time Stands Still (* * * out of four), which opened Thursday at Broadway's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, is a case in point. The characters and dilemmas are variations on themes we've encountered before — if not in life, then in films and TV dramas. Sarah, a photographer, and James, her journalist beau, are socially conscious adrenaline junkies who thrive on dangerous, purposeful assignments.
When we meet the couple in this Manhattan Theatre Club production, Sarah has returned from another war zone, having survived a nearly fatal accident with broken bones and a face full of shrapnel scars. James, who endured an emotional breakdown before her scrape with death, wonders if they should consider a safer, more settled lifestyle.
Sarah, predictably, resists this idea, and James' solicitous affection in general. She's one of those hard-bitten career women who is forever judging herself and others from behind a shield of caustic humor — you know the type.
Fortunately, she's played here by the remarkable Laura Linney, whose unmannered lucidity and utter lack of vanity make Sarah more convincing and sympathetic. Likewise, Brian d'Arcy James' natural, vital performance ensures that his role isn't reduced to a sensitive modern male in distress.
A winning Eric Bogosian also turns up, ideally cast as Richard, Sarah's wry editor and former lover, now keeping company with the much younger and less cultured Mandy. Though the latter character seems to exist principally as a foil for Sarah, Alicia Silverstone gives her a warmth and gentle substance.
Donald Margulies' new play is a thoughtful, absorbing work, its strengths maximized in the crystalline naturalism of Daniel Sullivan's production and the incisive interpretations of four astute actors. Reflecting on the divergent growth paths and changing needs of long-term relationships, "Time Stands Still" tends to tack on ethical debate points that reveal as much of the playwright's voice as those of his characters. This makes the drama somewhat amorphous and less satisfying than it could be. But there's a ring of truth to the emotional experience being thrashed out onstage that keeps it compelling.
The central figures are a couple of real-world horror junkies. Journalist James (Brian d'Arcy James) and photographer Sarah (Laura Linney) have spent their eight-year relationship hopping from one global hot spot to the next, covering wars, famines and genocides. While James made a shell-shocked retreat from Iraq months earlier, Sarah narrowly escaped death in a car bombing in which her interpreter was killed.
The play opens on Sarah's return to their shared Brooklyn loft, designed with stylish authenticity by John Lee Beatty. She has a banged-up leg, a broken arm and a scar-streaked face she dryly refers to as "my 'Phantom of the Opera' look." Exhausted and prickly, Linney's Sarah heads off the sympathy her physical state might invite with a blunt succession of terse sentences and single-word replies to James' nervous attentions. Clearly, there's a strain in the relationship that goes beyond her injuries.
Friction is put on hold by the arrival of old friend Richard (Eric Bogosian), a magazine photo editor, with his perky young girlfriend, Mandy (Alicia Silverstone). Her job as an event planner could hardly represent a more frivolous polar opposite to the politically and socially engaged world of Sarah and James.
This initial exposure to the two-couple dynamic is one of the play's most entertaining high points. Attitudes and positions are quietly suggested in the smart, casually funny observations of Margulies' dialogue and beautifully established by all four actors.
While Sarah looks on or comments with cutting superiority, James balances mocking bemusement with just a hint that he understands Richard's attraction to Mandy (conveniently absent in the bathroom for much of the dissection).
Bogosian is terrific at shrugging off the midlife crisis cliche. He smothers his mild embarrassment over his girlfriend's lack of sophistication with a vigorous defense of his right to uncomplicated happiness after a punishing relationship with a hyperanalytical intellectual. "Fuck brilliant," he says. "I've done brilliant."
More unexpected, however, is the swiftness with which Margulies and Silverstone dignify Mandy and distinguish her from the usual bubblehead stereotype. She might be too eager to share her simplistic views, and she's obviously scrambling to keep up with the cultural references, but unapologetic Mandy has an integrity that grows as the play and Silverstone's enormously likable performance evolve, which puts the others to shame. (Silverstone is the sole cast member from Sullivan's premiere staging at the Geffen Playhouse to return.)
The steadily fermenting conflict centers on Sarah's intention, as soon as her recovery permits, to head back to Iraq, while James has emerged from his burnout with an unfamiliar desire for peace and stability. The example of Richard and Mandy's blossoming union feeds that nesting instinct. Ostensibly, James' lack of family rights during Sarah's hospitalization is the principal argument in favor of their belated marriage. But Sarah's feelings of guilt and indebtedness are more decisive factors, even if her addiction to the adrenaline rush of her work remains an obstacle.
Margulies doesn't entirely avoid editorializing in arguments that surface regarding the ethics of journalism that traffics in human suffering, the misguided good intentions of high-minded liberal docu-theater, the ennobling attractions of wretchedness and oppression, or the desensitization of youth through a diet of torture porn. There's also a schematic note to the suggestion that James' extended study of the latter phenomenon is a substitute for frontline action: "Replacing real horror with fake horror."
The uneven integration of those themes drains some of the poignancy from the growing distance in the central relationship -- and some definition from the dramatic arc. But the richly three-dimensional and fully centered characterizations of James and Linney keep it real. James' explosions of anger out of carefully maintained calm and patience are particularly effective.
As strong as the ensemble work is, it's Sarah's play, and the meticulous Linney reinforces that ownership without ever sacrificing her give-and-take with the other actors. She brings shadings to Sarah that can make her seem cold and unyielding, even in processing her own grief. Yet there's a self-doubt underneath her impassioned defense of her chosen field that indicates she's not indifferent to the charges of insensitivity. Nor is she unaware that the conviction she brings to her work can't mask her own encroaching despair.